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The gentle purging of Sir Humphrey

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THE liberation of France in the summer of 1944 was a joyous occasion. Crushed by more than four years of German occupation, the newly free people came together in a spirit of optimism to rebuild their beloved country from the ashes of the Third Republic. Never before in world history had such a positive, almost utopian, spirit been so openly manifested.

Of course most of the above is bunk. The people of France actually fell upon each other in what was later called the ‘savage purge’. Those who had benefited from German occupation were targets, as were women who had given their bodies to the occupier. Frenchmen and women who had openly collaborated with the Germans in their military and political ambitions were hunted, rounded up and killed without the pretence of a fair trial. For the survivors, the social stigma of collaboration persisted for years.

The savage purge was followed by a ‘legal purge’, where the successor governments of the French Republic put collaborators on trial with penalties varying from execution for those such as Pierre Laval, to the loss of civil rights and public disgrace for those at a lower level in the machinery of occupation and exploitation. Some officials from the occupation managed to disguise their collaboration for decades. French officials and police participated in the deportation of French Jews to German extermination camps. Not all of them faced justice.

It is perhaps too much of a stretch to compare Remainers with French collaborators. However the integration of EU directives into British law did require the active and possibly enthusiastic participation of numerous civil servants. Their impartiality over the EU project of ‘ever-closer union’ is a matter for debate, especially while membership of the EU was government policy. It was unlikely that a Eurosceptic civil servant would advance to a senior position where engagement with counterparts in Brussels was a significant part of the job. Such a filter would, over the decades, ensure that only certain types of opinion and action would be acceptable. Being pro-EU was a wise and necessary career move.

So this might explain what is going on in Whitehall. The UK is doing a U-turn on its relations with the EU. It is asserting its independence as a sovereign nation and this paradigm shift might be a shift too far for some mandarins, especially considering that integration was part of the bureaucratic culture for decades. During the May premiership, an entire bureaucracy that was welded to a continental technocracy had to try to get out the hammer and chisel and chip themselves away from this edifice at the behest of their ultimate employers, the British people. It is not too surprising that some civil servants found the task intellectually impossible even to conceive. So instead a classic fudge was proposed, causing the downfall of Mrs May and eventually a fresh General Election. It is an indictment of those we pay to lord it over us that it was necessary for there to be two General Elections and one EU election before Whitehall finally got the message and started to do what they were told.

Which all brings me to Sir Philip Rutnam, the erstwhile permanent secretary at the Home Office. Rutnam has decided to quit his post in the most public fashion possible, acting more like a prima donna cabinet minister ejected from government than the quiet, sober official he was meant to be. But Rutnam does not have the hair to be a Heseltine. There are reports that, in the face of increased workload requirements of the Home Office over Brexit, Sir Philip decided to act like Sir Humphrey and frustrate the Home Secretary. He seems to have believed, to his cost, that Whitehall’s traditional masterly inactivity was appropriate during a time of necessary change imposed by the outcome of numerous democratic votes. And Priti Patel is no Jim Hacker.

To mix metaphors, the Ship of State is using a new map. The earlier mutiny by the crew below deck, who wanted to stay close to the previous course after new captains came on board, is bringing about a reckoning. That rebellious officials object to the change using unattributable off-the-record briefings to journalists, or in the case of Sir Philip an unprecedented press conference for a departing mandarin, is not surprising, but they cannot argue with four democratic votes that made the position of the people of the UK quite clear. 

Sir Philip and his like-minded fellows who played a game of frustrating the will of the British people after years of career-enhancing collaboration should perhaps take comfort that being purged in the UK is a considerably kinder and gentler affair than it has ever been on the mainland of their still-beloved continent.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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